Management a distinct lack of drama

The Update, The Vent, and The Disaster

Business is noisy.

Business is full of people worrying loudly about projects, process, and other people. These people have opinions and they share them all over the place — all the time. This collective chatter is part of the daily regimen of a healthy business, but this chatter will bury the individual voice unless someone pays attention.

Your job in a 1:1 is to give the smallest voice a chance to be heard, and I start with a question: “How are you?”

The Basics

Before we start, let’s go over the basic rules I follow regarding 1:1s:

Same time each week. When you become a manager of people, an odd thing happens. You’re automatically perceived as being busier. Whether you are or not is irrelevant; folks just think you are. Consistently landing your 1:1s at the same time on the same day is a weekly reminder that you are here for them — no matter how busy.

Always do it. Ok, so you are really busy. You’re running from meeting to meeting. It’s easy to de-prioritize a 1:1 because unlike whatever meeting you’re running to or from, a 1:1 doesn’t represent an urgent problem that needs solving. I’ll beat this perceived lack of value opinion out of you later in this piece, but for now understand that each time you bail on a 1:1 they hear, “You don’t matter”.

30 minutes, at least. Another favorite move of the busy manager is to schedule a 1:1 for 15 minutes or less. It’s the best I can do, Rands. I’ve got 15 people working for me. First, those 15 people don’t work for you; you work for them. Think of it like this: if those 15 people left, just left the building tomorrow, how much work would actually get done? Second, if you’ve got 15 people working for you, you’re not their manager, you’re just the guy who grins uncomfortably as you infrequently fly by the office, ask how it’s going, and then don’t actually listen to the answer.

Having a meaningful conversation with anyone takes time. As you’ll see in a moment, you start with an opener where you figure out where everyone is mentally, which builds conversational momentum into having a conversation of consequence. In your 15-minute 1:1, all you learn is that you don’t have time to care.

How Are You?

It’s a softball opener. I recognize that, but I lead with a vanilla opener because this type of content-free question is vague enough that the recipient can’t help but put part of themselves into the answer, and it’s the answer where the 1:1 begins.

What’s the first thing they say? Do they deflect with humor? Is it the standard off-the-cuff answer? Or is it different? How is it different? What words did they choose and how quickly are they saying them? How long did they wait to answer? Did they even answer the question? Do you understand the answer isn’t the point, either? The content is merely a delivery vehicle for the mood and the mood sets your agenda.

As I’m listening to the answer I’m discerning your mood and I’m throwing you into one of three buckets regarding the type of 1:1 we’re about to have:

  1. The Update (All clear!)
  2. The Vent (Something’s up…)
  3. The Disaster (Oh dear…)

The reads on the majority of the 1:1s fall into the first bucket. The answer to my softball opener is pleasant and familiar. We’re going to walk through the facts, dig a little bit here and there, wander, and then it’ll be over. Great. The other two buckets are trickier to assess with a single question. Your answer to my question is… off. You either state this up front with the alarming, “We need to talk” proclamation, which immediately throws you in the Vent bucket, but this could also easily be a Disaster. By far, the worst answer to the opener is the quiet one, the answer that contains something hidden and insidious.

Oh dear.

The Update

You get exactly what you expect from The Update — it’s status. These are my projects and these are my people and this is how it’s going down. I believe most folks consider this type of 1:1 to be a success and they’re wrong.

A 1:1 is not a project meeting. A 1:1 is not status report. See all those project managers scurrying to and fro? Their job is the maintenance of the facts and the discovery of project truth. If you’re drawing the line for success in your 1:1 as the discussion of data you could find in a status report, you’re missing the point. A 1:1 is an opportunity to learn something new amidst the grind of daily business.

When a 1:1 starts and is clearly an Update, I start listening twice as hard for a nugget of something that we can discuss, investigate, and explore. It’s not that I don’t care about status, it’s just that we’ve got 45 minutes here and if we fill that time with data I can find scrubbing the bug database and the wiki, we’re both wasting our time.

So, I listen, I take it on myself to find a meaty conversation, and if I don’t find it in the first 15 minutes, I’ve got three moves:

Move #1 – Three Prepared Points: While I believe part of a good organic 1:1 is improvisation, I usually have three talking points in my back pocket that have shown up over the past week regarding you or your team. If we can’t find a good thread of conversation in the first 10-15 minutes, I’ll start with one of these points and see where that takes us.

Move #2 – The Mini-Performance Review: You read that right. If we’re 15 minutes into a lifeless, redundant, status-based 1:1 and I don’t have anything sitting in my back pocket, I’m going to turn this into a performance review. It won’t be your actual performance review; it’s one aspect of your review that somehow strikes me as more appropriate conversation than an update on your bug counts. I see you’ve got a handle on your bugs, but one thing we talked about at your last annual performance review was getting a better handle on the architecture. How’s that going?

Move #3 – My Current Disaster. Chances are, in my professional life, something is currently off the rails. It’s selfish, but if you’re leading with status and I can’t find an interesting discussion nugget, let’s talk about my current disaster. Do you know how many open reqs we have that we can’t hire against? Who is the best hiring manager you know and what were their best moves? The point of this discussion is not to solve my Disaster, the point is that we’re going to have a conversation where one of us is going to learn something more than just project status.

Business is noisy because there is always stuff to do and the process of doing stuff is called tactics. It’s tactical work and while tactics are progress, the real progress is made when we get strategic. A productive 1:1 is one where we talk strategically about how we do stuff, but, more importantly, how we might do this stuff better.

The Vent

A really good Vent starts with a disarmingly long period of silence. I’ve just asked my soft opener and you’re quiet. Really quiet. I can see you mentally gathering steam. I take this time to ground myself because while I know a Vent is coming, I likely don’t know the content or the severity. Vents vary from a semi-tense “I can’t stand QA today” to a full-on explosion: “If I have to listen to Thomas grind his goddamned Fair Trade Certified Peruvian coffee beans in his office ONE MORE TIME, I might lose it.”

When the Vent begins, you might confuse this for a conversation. It’s not. It’s a Vent. It’s a mental release valve and your job is to listen for as long as it takes. Don’t problem solve. Don’t redirect. Don’t comfort. Yet. Your employee is doing mental house cleaning and interrupting this cleaning is missing the point. They don’t want a solution, they want to be heard.

A Vent does have a conclusion. There is a point where you need to jump in, but these conclusions and your actions vary.

#1 It’s Done. The Vent starts to lose steam and the Venter finds themselves panting and staring at you with nothing to say because they’ve said it all — probably a couple of times. It’s in this moment that you begin your triage. Great, now we start talking…

#2 It’s a Rant. A Vent can repeat itself. The same facts and content might be thrown at you in a couple of different ways. I see this repetition as healthy way of chewing on the problem, but there’s a point where this Vent becomes a Rant. After a couple of Vent cycles, you might try grabbing hold of the conversation and starting with triage, but brace yourself — they might not be done — and my suggestion, in the face of resistance, is to give them the benefit of the doubt and let ‘em go another round.

The Vent that wants no help is a Rant. The Ranter somehow believes that the endless restatement of their opinion is the solution. Perhaps they have no clue what a solution might be or how to find it or perhaps they’ve been stewing on the topic so long, they’ve lost all sight of logic.

Whatever the back story, the Ranter is finding some weird mental satisfaction in the endless restatement of the problem, but they have no interest in solving the actual problem at this point. Annoying. When you’ve got a confirmed Rant on your hands, it’s ok to jump into the middle of the Vent — you’re saving everyone a pile of time and you’re teaching the Ranter that the incessant restatement of the Rant is not progress.

#3 It’s a Disaster. You’re listening carefully to the Vent. It’s moving forward and it’s not repeating itself, but… something is up. Perhaps it’s their demeanor or maybe it’s the topic, but your radar is pinging. The Venter is not standing on their usual soapbox. They’re out of character and, as time is passing, they are becoming less themselves.

At its core, the Vent is motivated by emotion. That’s the key difference between the Update and the Vent. The topic has triggered an emotional response and their therapy is the verbal statement and restatement of the situation. Emotion is a slippery slope, and what can start as a Vent has a chance of spiraling into a Disaster. It’s rare in business, but it’s a risk when you’re dealing with emotionally slippery human beings.

The Disaster

If a Vent feels like a speech, a Disaster feels like an attack. What started as an emotional conversation has transformed into a war, and you’re suddenly and unexpectedly on the battlefield.

Until you’ve seen the Disaster once, it’s hard to predict how you’re going to react to the perception of being attacked. For better or worse, it’s happened enough to me that when I see the Disaster approaching, I carefully tuck all of my emotions in a box, lock the aforementioned box, and magically transform into a Vulcan.

When the Disaster arrives, the absolute worst response is any semblance of emotion. See, they want to fight. They literally want to go a couple of rounds on this particular topic. What was a high degree of frustration has transformed into pure aggression and if you so much as blink improperly, you’re contributing to the escalation of this situation.

Some tips:

  • They are not themselves. As you’re sitting there weathering the Disaster, remember that you are experiencing an anomaly. It’s a bizarre emotional version of themselves that only shows up when they’re on the edge. The person you’re familiar with will show up… eventually.
  • Shut up. Really. Your primary job during the Disaster is to defuse, and you start defusing by contributing absolutely nothing. If you’re a logical, reasonable management type, you’ll be tempted to ask clarifying questions — to try to shape the problem. Don’t. Be quiet. Let the emotion pass. Here’s why…
  • It’s not about the issue anymore. You’re no longer experiencing the problem. You’re experiencing the employee’s emotional baggage regarding the problem. Sure, there’s the core issue, but that’s not what you’re currently observing. You’re seeing the extreme negative reaction to the issue and that’s the first order of business.

Like the Vent, success is traversing the emotional explosion. There will, hopefully, be a point when the majority of the emotion has passed and they’re willing to having a rational discussion. Unlike the Vent, the discussion is not about the core issue. It starts with the Disaster, with understanding the intense emotion surrounding the topic.

A Disaster is end result of poor management. Your employee believes totally losing their shit is a productive strategy – they believe it’s the only option left to making anything change.

Assume They Have Something to Teach You

The cliché is “People are your most valuable resource”. I would argue they are your only resource. Computers, desks, building, data centers… Whatever. All of those other tools only support your one and only resource: your people.

People mentally wander. It’s in their nature to make off-the-cuff observations — “Why does Phil get the choice features?” — and to let those observations fester, mutate, and sometimes transform into a Disaster. I’m not suggesting that every 1:1 is a tortuous affair to discover deeply hidden emergent disasters, but you do want to create a weekly place where dissatisfaction might quietly appear. A 1:1 is your chance to perform weekly preventive maintenance while also understanding the health of your team. A 1:1 is a place to listen for what they aren’t saying.

The sound that surrounds successful regimen of 1:1s is silence. All of the listening, questioning, and discussion that happens during a 1:1 is managerial preventative maintenance. You’ll see when interest in a project begins to wane and take action before it becomes job dissatisfaction. You’ll hear about tension between two employees and moderate a discussion before it becomes a yelling match in a meeting. Your reward for a culture of healthy 1:1s is a distinct lack of drama.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

38 Responses

  1. Awesome. Wow, reminds me why I’m really happy NOT to be a manager. :-)

  2. genius. again. damn but I want to work for a boss like this!

  3. Ben Rosengart 4 years ago

    Rands, please tell me you didn’t write “diffuse” when you meant “defuse”.

  4. I agree with John — where can I find a boss like this, or even a company that would allow them to exist?

  5. I hope I can be a boss like this sometime. A distinct lack of drama would be amazing.

    Fire drills every day, and for a while meetings with soapboxes every week destroy morale. Good thing I am gone.

  6. Thomas 4 years ago

    “People…are your only resource”

    Really? I’m a “resource”? I was born a resource? My parents raised a resource?

    You distinguished people from other resources such as “computers, desks, building(sic), data centers..” i.e. things. Actually, people are human beings, with families and histories and needs and emotions. We are not to be grouped semantically with things. Remember, a noun is a “person, place or thing”, not a “place or thing”. People are special, and your language should reflect that. Our names get capitalized; we’re special.

    “We have a new resource starting today, so make sure the resource has a resource to work on and a resource to work at….”

    I successfully got a previous manager to stop using the dehumanizing label “resources”. There was the occasional backslide, but I think it made a difference in their perspective.

    I think this happens in companies with many layers of management, and a lot less in small companies. Managers are concerned with satisfying the company needs by manipulating “resources”, and lump people in with that. But coworkers on a team never call each other “resources”.

    Hey, sorry for the vent ;)

  7. Bryce 4 years ago

    @ Thomas

    Zi point, it has been missed.

  8. It is better not do 1:1 at all, instead of doing it and canceling it on people. I felt really frustrated when my manager would cancle it and sometimes 3 or 4 times in a row.

    The other thing that really pissed me off was in the 1:1 he would be reading his emails and answering phone calls. Why bother ?

  9. @MaggieL 4 years ago

    Actually Ben, I think the manager’s function here *is* to “diffuse” in the sense of dissipating and diluting, rather than “de-fuse” as in preventing an explosion.

    The point here is that the person presenting as The Disaster has emotions that have already boiled over, and the 1:1 may be his or her only venue for expressing and processing them without unhappy political consequences.

    If they are “de-fused”, that can’t happen. Think of an overheated boiler: you want to relieve the pressure, not contain it.

  10. It seems you are classifying things based on the emotional intensity of the conversation, but not on content. What about the case where you’re dealing with someone who isn’t being particularly emotional beyond a little nervousness, but is giving you some REALLY bad news, that is coming at you out of left field?

    By your classification, this is a “Status Update”, not a “Disaster.” However, if someone is telling you that GargantuanModuleX needs to be completely re-written and it’s 2 weeks to your scheduled ship date, that sounds like a disaster to me.

  11. @Eric: You seem to have missed the point. It IS all about the emotional response. Once you get past that, no matter what the issue is that needs to be fixed, that’s loads easier to deal with than an employee/co-worker that’s (for a lack of a better term) lost their shit. Bad news is bad news, and if you’re any good or had experience at being a boss/manager, then you know how to deal with it. It’s much harder to get the fuming screamer to calm down so you can start working on the solution than actually working on it.

    I love your stuff Rands, for anybody. Boss, manager, person in whatever position in life — when dealing with people, you have some great ways to spell it out. :)

  12. Ben Rosengart 4 years ago

    Good point, @Maggiel, but Rands does seem to have corrected his text to “defuse”, so I think I was right.

  13. If I had read this 3 years ago, I would have been a better manager. Deepest thanks…in fact, I’ve ordered Anathem for you off your wish list in gratitude!

  14. Love every single thing I’ve read from you. Noticed that you use both “preventive” and “preventative” in the same article…

  15. You forgot #4: The “I just don’t care anymore”

    The employee has lost all motivation for the job. It could be that they think the project is doomed for reason X and every time they’ve brought it up it hasn’t been addressed. Maybe they’ve worked on the same project for a while and are feeling burnt out, disinterested. It could be that they don’t feel challenged, it could be serial procrastination, it could be that they want to change jobs but haven’t found an ideal one yet.

    I used to think that people in this situation would end up leaving sooner rather than later, but I’ve seen quite a few people stick around in this state for one reason or another.

    So how do you identify it? And how do you deal with it?

  16. Salman 4 years ago

    @Thomas I think Rand made the difference clear between Rools and Resources.

    What I understand of him calling us resource actually means as a source of help or someone who has an ability to find solutions. In that sense we are resources.

    My parents have proudly raised me to be a resource, not a tool with an asset id, purchase price and devaluating rate.

  17. Salman 4 years ago

    Rools = Tools =) I made a typo

  18. MaggieL 4 years ago

    @ben: Nah, in affect you’re just a diction bully. A lose canon, for all intensive purposes. :-)

    I rool.

  19. Bill Smith 4 years ago

    Thank you for the article. Not only is this useful advice for managers, but it may help put things in perspective for individual contributors too.

  20. Yiwei 4 years ago

    I’ve been following your articles and i really like this one. I wish i had a boss like you. Even when Companies are big and have layers of management, they should really stop treating their only resources like computers that work like robots and has no emotions. Managers that do well are usually good leaders. Managers manage things, Leaders lead people. Maybe companies should consider hiring Leaders, not Managers.

  21. Interesting. How about a fourth type: The Problem Solver. Less energy than a Vent and geared toward “help me deal with this situation.” These seem to be the most common with me. In a company with a “highly matrixed” (which can be interpreted on occasion as “cross-wired”) structure, one’s direct reports frequently bump up against other managers and/or staff of other managers, whose styles may differ mightily from mine. These sessions can be pretty challenging, possibly resulting in combination of staff management, peer management, shuttle diplomacy and outright tap dancing. But I also find they provide some of the meatiest opportunities for me to make a positive difference in the environment around the office.

  22. Managers are therapists and almost nothing else.

  23. Grant Gould 4 years ago

    As someone on the resource side of the 1:1s, I agree with you wholeheartedly right up to the details, but then suddenly you seem to go off the rails. In your discussion of venting (emotional), ranting (very emotional), and disasters (egad the emotional!) you have left out any situation where the resource is actually rationally concerned that a genuine problem needs to be escalated to management.

    As an engineering resource, the 1:1 is just about my only chance to ask that an issue be escalated. Thus when I say that some part of the organizational infrastructure is not working and is creating risks across the organization, it is not necessarily because I am being emotional, nor is the correct response is to say “there there” and wait it out. It is worth at least briefly considering that I might be actually, honestly, and rationally trying to alert you to a simmering organizational problem requiring escalation up the management chain.

    Your description seems to have wholly foreclosed the use of the 1:1 to communicate information. My advice: if that “vent” communicates a real problem and you’re the first manager to get a handle on it then you get to be a Big Hero.

  24. Noumenon 4 years ago

    I can hardly read the comments on this blog because of one thing: people keep calling you “Rands.” That is not a name. Oh, I just wikipediad it and it is a user handle. It really irritates me for some reason though.

  25. First, those 15 people don’t work for you; you work for them. Think of it like this: if those 15 people left, just left the building tomorrow, how much work would actually get done?

    Uhm, zero? Which means it’s the 15 people working (for me), and not me for them. Bad analogy, but of course I see your point.

  26. Confused way of saying simply the workers are valuable.

    If the manager worked for them, he wouldn’t be skipping their meetings.

    On the other hand, a good manager can do the same work as them. If he merely cannot do the work of all 15 people at once, that does not mean he is now working for a union of 15 workers.

  27. I have two time sheets, two bosses, four versions of status reports, a weekly team meeting, a monthly team meeting, a monthly mandatory x-functional team lunch-and-learn. And a weekly 1:1. Our status sheet asks us to re-enter information already in our time sheet, already in the project-manager’s own status reports, and in the various tracking databases. I am not amused by any of this and find the data-to-information and the data-to-relevant change ratio I receive from all of these reporting events to be poor. A 1:1? I look forward to it very little.

  28. Grant, I think your point is addressed very early on when Rands makes it clear that he is *actively looking* for an interesting topic to discuss that is not a status update. If you have an issue that needs to be addressed, then I read this article as saying that he would latch on to that and spend some time really understanding your point. That’s precisely the kind of discussion he wants to have.

  29. For the commenters who were mentioning about how to deal with the lack of emotional response or problems that should be rationally solved, that all should be going into the Update bin (as far as I understand.)

    Direct quote, last sentence in the Update section:

    “A productive 1:1 is one where we talk strategically about how we do stuff, but, more importantly, how we might do this stuff better.”

  30. @DUDE I believe what you are talking about is called bore-out.

  31. Harry the Hacker 4 years ago

    @CUBE: Sounds like the rubbish I used to have to fill out each week. One day I stopped doing it, to see what the consequences might be. There were none. Perhaps you should try it.

    I agree with one of the other comments – had I read this a few years back I would have made a better manager.

    And @Thomas: Completely agree about calling people “resources”. Its demeaning and dehumanising and I correct everybody I come across who says this. Frequently they get the point, there are some die-hards who don’t and still think you can clip engineers off the back of corn-flakes boxes.

  32. Pargev Ghazaryan 4 years ago

    Thanks for a nice article.

    I am a program manager and always try to correct the people who use “Resource” to identify a Person.

    Engineers, managers, housekeepers are people. They have resources, namely: “Human Resources”. So the workforce they produce is a resource, not them.

    I found this explanation the best to make the “resource-callers” get rid of that habit and sometimes even change their mindset (though this viewpoint may confront with some traditional project management vocabularies).

    Thanks again!

  33. I want to work for rands.

    I want to work for a manager who can ask “How are you?” and my immediate thought is not a suspicious “Why do you want to know?” or “What are you _really_ asking?”

  34. Bryan 3 years ago

    Excellent post! I’ve long found the 1:1 to be my most important meeting. At the end of a the day its all about relationships and if you have good relationships with your team you’ll be able to help them achieve great things.

    Another great resource for 1:1’s I picked up from a management advice site: Manager Tools.

    They have a great format for 1:1’s that they make as easy as possible to use. Read about it here.

  35. Scheduled 1:1’s are a smell. They indicate a lack of presence. It would be like scheduling sex with your spouse. Interaction should be natural not obligatory, scheduled or forced. A 21st century management technique.

  36. @ DEREK NEIGHBORS

    “Interaction should be natural not obligatory, scheduled or forced.” Really? And if interaction doesn’t come naturally should a manager just fire the offending employee and hire someone more like their spouse?

    Interaction IS obligatory in an employee/employer relationship. Show me the workplace where employees aren’t obligated to interact with their managers, or where employees who interact more with their managers don’t have an advantage compared to employees who interact less with their managers.

    I would argue that you also have an obligation to interact with your spouse, but there are several differences. 1. You have only one spouse (if you had 10, you might have a different opinion about the value of scheduling time with each of them). 2. You got to choose your spouse. 3. You probably chose them primarily based on the pleasure of interacting with them.

    As a manager, you may have many team members. Maybe you got to choose them, and maybe you didn’t, but even if you did, you probably didn’t choose them based on how much pleasure you get from interacting with them. You probably chose them based on how well they could do the required tasks (of which, interacting with you is just one).

    There is no reason to expect interaction to come naturally with ALL your team members. 1:1’s may seem forced initially, but that’s NOT because they’re scheduled. It’s because the relationship hasn’t developed yet. It’s only by scheduling time together, that a relationship can develop (to the benefit of the manager, the employee, the team and the organization).

  37. Reading the way Rands approaches the 1:1 reinforces the way I’ve always felt about them as an employee. When my supervisors cancel a 1:1 I never feel “I’m not important,” I feel “Great! Now I can get some more work done!”

    Seriously, as an employee if I’m getting close to the Vent point I’m darn well not going to wait for a scheduled meeting to address it. I’ll walk into my supervisor’s office and deal with it right then.

  38. Absolutely insightful.

    And .. how I wish I could conspire with all the people in next week’s 1:1s to throw this analysis for a curlve ball.